Epiousios: The Mysterious Greek Word in the Lord’s Prayer

This post is not the same one I originally intended. Several days ago I thought a nice subject to write about would be the history of the Lord’s Prayer (also known as the “Our Father”). It does have some interesting history, as we can trace its origin directly to scripture in the books of Matthew and Luke with various translations to Latin and then to the English version I say every day. Here’s the version I’m most familiar with:

Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

When going through the background research on the prayer, the sixth line bore very interesting fruit – enough to consume several hours worth of research and change the course of this post. The line causing such a digression is Give us this day our daily bread, and I have come to conclude this line contains one of the most important words in  Catholic apologetics: daily.

Our Daily Bread?

The word daily is the commonly cited translation of a mysterious Greek word epiousios – a word nowhere written down before in any Greek literature yet comprising many possible etymologies. This marks it immediately as a word deserving disproportional attention in its translation. The word’s translation to daily relies upon the interpretation of epi- as “for” and ousia as meaning something to the effect of “for the being” with an implicit context of the current day. [1] This interpretation was used in the famous King James Version, the Tyndale Bible, and a majority of English Bibles today [2]. Latin works by early Tertullian of Carthage (155-240 AD) and the Vetus Latina (or “Old Latin”) Bible translations also used this interpretation of epiousios [3]. Similar translations include “bread for today”, “bread for the day”, and other such minor variations [4],[5].Other etymologies hinge on a speculated link between known Greek word epiouse found in the book of Acts meaning “the next” and our mysterious word epiousios, with some suggesting the former is a feminized version of epiousios [6,7].

Nonetheless, the daily interpretation is by far the most commonly printed English translation despite reasonable evidence as to its inadequacy. The strongest argument against “daily” as correct is the fact that every other reference to “daily” is written as hemeran (ἡμέραν, “the day”) in the Greek texts [8-18]. It would be odd that, given a readily available and common Greek word for “daily”, the Gospel authors would choose a completely esoteric form of the word in this one instance without good reason. Lastly, a translation of epiousios to “daily” is clearly (yet incredibly easy to go unnoticed) redundant in the line Give us thisdayourdailybread. To satisfy those who may simply explain away this redundancy as merely accidental or the result of a habit of speech, consider that this word epiousios is the only non-possessive adjective in the entire prayer. Then, recall again, this word epiousios has never been found elsewhere in Greek literature. Most of us do not use obtuse language when we speak to others nor when we pray, except for some older English words such as “thy” and “art” (as we say in the Lord’s Prayer). The early Christians likely did not haphazardly include a word never once recorded before in Greek to our knowledge. Whatever word he said in Aramaic, the earliest Greek-speaking Christians must have recognized the uniqueness of the word to justify giving it a unique Greek translation.

Super Substantial Bread?

Now, we come to the part where my Catholic readers and my Protestant readers will have quite different emotions upon the remainder of this article. This is because, the most plausible translation of the the word epiousios is something that Catholics will recognize immediately as the Eucharist – the “summit and source of Christian life”, the literal body of blood of Jesus Christ.

Now, to my Protestant brothers and sisters – fear not. I am not pulling a fast one on you with the goal of a converting you to the Catholic faith; I am merely pulling apart the translation of a word that has gone under the radar far too long to the utmost scrutiny that I can muster. Again, when I set out to research the journey of the Lord’s Prayer through its various translations from its first recordings in the Gospel to today, I did not expect to find any reference to the Eucharist at all. The most plausible translation among scholars points in this direction, so that is the direction I followed. Nonetheless, I will help my Protestant brothers and sisters (for I was once among you) out of the conundrum you may find yourselves in momentarily by pointing out that the definitive understanding of the translation is still disputed. I simply encourage you to consider where you place your bets based on the evidence. Furthermore, there are a few similar yet “un-Catholicized” interpretations that you may find rest your mind on the matter, though I find they still point the compass toward Rome.

Another breakdown of the mysterious Greek word renders epi– as “super” and ousia as “substance”, which the early Christian scholar Jerome of Stridon (342- 420 AD) put together to form “super-substantial” in the Latin Vulgate, which brings to mind the Catholic belief in transubstantiation. The Catholic Church has since rendered the translation similarly as “super-essential” in Latin and regards it as the most literal possible translation of epiousios. One of the major advantages this interpretation has over the “daily” interpretation is its support by a majority of early Christian scholars, including Augustine (the famous author of Confessions – a must-read in the study of philosophy and Christianity), Cyril of Jerusalem, Cyprian of Carthage, John Cassian [19,20], and other early Church fathers [19,20,21], as well as by the Council of Trent [22]. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, a summary of belief, retains this understanding of epiousios to this day. The Catechism addresses the word directly as follows [23]:

2837 “Daily” (epiousios) occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. Taken in a temporal sense, this word is a pedagogical repetition of “this day,” to confirm us in trust “without reservation.” Taken in the qualitative sense, it signifies what is necessary for life, and more broadly every good thing sufficient for subsistence. Taken literally (epi-ousios: “super-essential”), it refers directly to the Bread of Life, the Body of Christ, the “medicine of immortality,” without which we have no life within us. Finally in this connection, its heavenly meaning is evident: “this day” is the Day of the Lord, the day of the feast of the kingdom, anticipated in the Eucharist that is already the foretaste of the kingdom to come. For this reason it is fitting for the Eucharistic liturgy to be celebrated each day.

Catholic Biblical scholars (and I suspect others as well) recognize that Biblical verses can have several simultaneous meanings, as reflected by the Catechism above. The word simultaneously holds temporal, qualitative, and literal meanings, the last of which is the interpretation I have presented today. Some may argue, the Catechism is here presenting a look at every possible interpretation, but again it also recognizes the word has been used nowhere else in scripture where other words suffice for the temporal and qualitative meanings. Thus to ignore the literal interpretation of the word in the Matthew’s recording of the Lord’s prayer is to ignore the intent of the specific usage of epiousios here. Note also the Eastern Orthodox churches hold the same opinion in the translation of epiousios as the Catholic Church.

However, there is further nuance to this story not as yet fleshed out. The Lord’s Prayer appears in both the books of Matthew and Luke. The Matthew version and the Luke versions of the Lord’s Prayer were slightly different, resulting in Jerome translating epiousios as “supersubstantial” in Matthew but as “daily” (quotidianum in Latin) in Luke. Much later, Martin Luther originally kept the interpretation as “supersubstantial” but retranslated it as “daily” later in life.

One of the leading experts on the early understanding of the Eucharist and its Jewish roots is Catholic theologian Brant Pitre, who writes in his book Jesus and the Last Supper (2015) concerning the understanding of epiousios I have presented here: “despite being widely held among ancient Christians, [the supersubstantial interpretation] receives virtually no support among modern exegetes … despite the fact that it is easily the most literal translation”[20]. I have felt a similar exasperation, not in any engagement with experts of the field, but the sheer ignorance I had regarding this part of the Lord’s Prayer, which I had been reciting since my youth. What bliss there is in learning when not looking for it, especially with things too familiar to be questioned. 

Further support of the “supersubstantial” interpretation, if you are not yet convinced, is found in fact that in the native tongues of Jesus (Aramaic and Hebrew), there is no word that translates into the Greek epiousios, thereby suggesting that the word was invented or first spoken by Jesus, his followers, and the earliest Christians. Typically, we do not invent words by mere accident; the word came about for a purpose, as it had to convey a meaning beyond that of merely “daily”: the tremendous importance that the Bread of Life would play in our relationship with Christ throughout the future ages.

Final Thoughts

Again, to my Protestant readers, you are not alone if you might disagree with the interpretation, as other Protestant and even some Catholic theologians have voiced. But, even if you dismiss what I’ve presented here, I hope it at least brings about an appreciation for just one of the legitimate reasons we Catholics believe in the Eucharist as the literal body and blood of Jesus in the first place: both tradition and modern scholarship offer good reasons to believe so. In fact, there are many more reasons; I would not even count the content of this essay as among the best evidence, though it is certainly an undervalued part. More evidence may be found in Biblical passages, the writings of the earliest Christians, and in its continuity with the Jewish Passover and Bread of the Presence found throughout the Old Testament.

The more I dig into the Bible, the early Christians, and all of Church history, the more I am intrigued. I have gone down a rabbit hole I do not regret, as I know that, personally, to study the faith is to love it all the more. Though my errors might well include “over-intellectualizing” my faith, I also know such curiosity is ultimately driven by the Holy Spirit; a desire to learn more of God is never a bad thing. 

So, the next time you are praying the Our Father, remember when you come to Give us this daily bread, that Jesus meant much more than simply the earthly food he gives us, but rather something “supersubstantial”.

Sources

[1] Brant Pitre (23 November 2015). Jesus and the Last Supper. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 172. ISBN 978-1-4674-4404-0.

[2] William Barclay (1 November 1998). The Lord’s Prayer. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 75. ISBN 978-0-664-25815-3.

[3] Colin Brown (1975). The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Zondervan Publishing House. p. 251. ISBN 978-0-310-33230-5.

[4] “Matthew 6 – WNT – Bible Study Tools”.

[5] Craig A. Evans (6 February 2012). Matthew. Cambridge University Press. pp. 147–. ISBN 978-0-521-81214-6.

[6] https://biblehub.com/greek/1966.htm

[7] Meyer, Ben (2009). The Early Christians: Their World Mission & Self-Discovery. Eugene, Oregon, USA: Wipf and Stock. pp. 20–21. ISBN 1606083708.

[8] “Matthew 6:11 Interlinear: ‘Our appointed bread give us to-day”. https://biblehub.com/interlinear/matthew/6-11.htm

[9] The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament, 1993, The United Bible Societies, (UBS4 Greek text), page x of Introduction

[10] “Matthew 20:2 Interlinear: and having agreed with the workmen for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard”. https://biblehub.com/interlinear/matthew/20-2.htm

[11] “Luke 9:23 Interlinear: And he said unto all, ‘If any one doth will to come after me, let him disown himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me;”. https://biblehub.com/interlinear/luke/9-23.htm

[12] “Acts 6:1 Interlinear: And in these days, the disciples multiplying, there came a murmuring of the Hellenists at the Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily ministration”. https://biblehub.com/interlinear/acts/6-1.htm

[13] “Acts 17:11 Interlinear: and these were more noble than those in Thessalonica, they received the word with all readiness of mind, every day examining the Writings whether those things were so;”. https://biblehub.com/interlinear/acts/17-11.htm

[14] “Acts 17:17 Interlinear: therefore, indeed, he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the worshipping persons, and in the market-place every day with those who met with him”. https://biblehub.com/interlinear/acts/17-17.htm

[15] “Acts 19:9 Interlinear: and when certain were hardened and were disbelieving, speaking evil of the way before the multitude, having departed from them, he did separate the disciples, every day reasoning in the school of a certain Tyrannus”. https://biblehub.com/interlinear/acts/19-9.htm

[16] “2 Corinthians 11:28 Interlinear: apart from the things without — the crowding upon me that is daily — the care of all the assemblies”. https://biblehub.com/interlinear/2_corinthians/11-28.htm

[17] “Hebrews 3:13 Interlinear: but exhort ye one another every day, while the To-day is called, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of the sin”. https://biblehub.com/interlinear/hebrews/3-13.htm

[18] “Hebrews 10:11 Interlinear: and every priest, indeed, hath stood daily serving, and the same sacrifices many times offering, that are never able to take away sins”. https://biblehub.com/interlinear/hebrews/10-11.htm

[19] Nicholas Ayo (2002). The Lord’s Prayer: A Survey Theological and Literary. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 59–. ISBN 978-0-7425-1453-9.Get the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Lords-Prayer-Survey-Theological-Literary/dp/0268012911/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=the+lord%27s+prayer%3A+a+survey+theological+and+literary&qid=1586829645&s=books&sr=1-1

[20] Brant Pitre (23 November 2015). Jesus and the Last Supper. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 159–. ISBN 978-1-4674-4404-0.Get the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Last-Supper-Brant-Pitre/dp/0802875335

[21] Ratzinger, Joseph (2007). Jesus of Nazareth. Doubleday. p. 154. ISBN 978-1-58617-198-8.Get the book: https://www.amazon.com/Joseph-Bendict-Ratzinger-Jesus-Nazareth/dp/B00RWSH18W/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=978-1-58617-198-8+isbn&qid=1586829760&s=books&sr=1-1

[22] Trent, Session 13, Chapter VIIIhttps://history.hanover.edu/texts/trent/ct13.html” with such piety and worship as to be able frequently to receive that supersubstantial bread, and that it may be to them truly the life of the soul, and the perpetual health of their mind”

[23] 2837 in “Catechism of the Catholic Church – The seven petitions”. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p4s2a3.htm. Retrieved 7 April 2020

[24] General reading from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epiousios

Published by Christian Bottenfield

Catholic | Father of two | Husband | Engineer | Founder of ThinkingWest blog

One thought on “Epiousios: The Mysterious Greek Word in the Lord’s Prayer

  1. Great article, Christian. I often pray this prayer when I don’t know what to pray or simply to prepare for me for my day because it sums up everything we nee. And isn’t interesting that Jesus made said, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” after having been led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness where Satan tempted Him. He is pray with heart for us, and by experience. I trust His leading in prayer. Loved this article.
    Stay safe and well. God loves you!
    Oh and I have nominated you for the Mystery Blogger Award. Please do not feel obligated to participate. Let me know if you do so I can read it. Take all the time you need. God believes in you!
    https://gaillovesgod.blog/2020/04/18/mystery-blogger-award-4-12-2020/

    Liked by 1 person

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